Musicians / Series: Prized Possesion

Ashan Pillai: Life with Sebastian

The day Sebastian came into his possession, viola maestro Ashan Pillai found himself watching a film about a twice martyred Christian. It is written that St. Sebastian first survived being shot through with arrows before succumbing to a brutal clubbing for daring to criticise the Emperor of Rome. (In later years, he would be called upon to protect believers from the Bubonic plague). Ashan remembers being particularly moved by the film and so the viola was christened Sebastian and Sebastian it has remained ever since.

The viola is the middle child of the violin family, nestling right there between the violin and the cello. Unlike its siblings, it does not have a standard size. At 44 inches long, Sebastian is big (even for a viola) but not as heavy as you would expect. Still, Ashan has had to mould his very body to suit its requirements. “It’s about developing the muscle system that the viola needs,” he tells his students, “it’s like a sport in that way or a dance form.” There are muscles in Ashan’s arms and fingers that are dramatically more pronounced than they would be in a normal person and he’s had to cultivate a stronger upper back as well. “Like any physical profession it does develop your body in specific ways,” he says.

Though he may not look it, Sebastian is in fact an imitation. A copy made in 1992 by Gregg Alf of a classic Italian instrument which was in turn made by the famous Gasparo da Salò, Sebastian is nevertheless worth a great deal. (In 1993 a violin made by Alf and his partner Joseph Curtin set a record at a Sotheby’s auction for the highest price paid for a violin by a living maker.) So simply purchasing it was something of an achievement – not every musician can muster the funds to buy such a fine instrument.

“It’s a very difficult rite of passage,” says Ashan of this essential purchase, adding that it’s something he continues to see young musicians struggling with. (Not a surprise when you consider that a good violin can cost upwards of $20,000.) Ashan himself was lucky to be supported by a grant, but acquiring the instrument is only the first challenge. Maintaining it demands its own feats of planning and acquisition. Take the bow for instance – they are strung with horse hair and the best horse hair is supposed to be sourced far away in China and Tibet. Nevertheless, despite the perils of strings and hair snapping, Sebastian and Ashan have “been all over the world” together.

Whether he finds himself performing in Calcutta or in London, Ashan follows the same routine. Fifteen minutes before the show starts Sebastian and Ashan have already begun to warm up. “I could never pick it up cold,” Ashan says, explaining that he has the viola in hand or cradled against his neck well before the curtains go up. It’s the last step in a routine that has the artist dedicating upwards of 2 hours a day to rehearsing with the instrument (the hours double when a tour calls for particularly demanding solos) – and this without including the time spent in actual rehearsal with other musicians. It’s why he knows his instrument so intimately and is able to navigate its notes purely by touch and sound. As if to return his affection, the viola richly rewards his effort, particularly when put through the paces of Brahms’ sonatas.

Today, in Sri Lanka on one of his frequent visits home, Ashan says he’s on a “very rare holiday from the viola.” It won’t last long; he’ll be back to his base in Barcelona and his rigorous practice schedule soon enough. By juggling multiple roles as an acclaimed teacher, chamber musician and soloist, Ashan has ensured he and Sebastian are much in demand – they haven’t been seen without each other on stage since 1994. With the passing of the years, Ashan believes Sebastian will only sound richer and more beautiful, aging like fine wine. “I think this is the instrument I’m going to have for life,” he says, evidently content with his lot.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on September 18 2011 as part of our Prized Possession series. Words by Smriti Daniel.

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